How did we get ‘so bad’ in approving new GMO traits?

Is the effort by environmental activist groups to impede the development of new GMO traits having an impact on efforts to double or even triple world food production?

It’s a theoretical example, but Adrianne Massey, the managing director of science and regulatory affairs for BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, shows how the lengthy delays in approvals for GMO crops are having a detrimental influence on the effort to grow more food.

“Let’s pretend that you have a situation where there’s a new disease of corn, and none of the varieties we have are resistant to it,” she says. “So you go and look at the ancestor of corn in Mexico, which is a weed called teosinte. And you happen to find a population of teosinte that is resistant to this disease.”

If you’re lucky, and the resistance is provided by one gene, you can move that gene into current corn hybrids by one of two ways. You can do it the old fashioned way and try to cross-breed teosinte with an acceptable corn hybrid – and probably spend years trying to remove all of the unacceptable traits that will also be transferred.

Or you can use genetic engineering and move the one gene that’s coded for resistance into a commercially acceptable hybrid, thus saving years of having to refine the strange plant that often results from cross-pollinating current germplasm with native plants.

“Which one would you pick? She asked. “Rationally, and anyone I would pick from the public would say you would choose the second one and move that one gene. No, you would not do that because the regulatory compliance cost for moving in that single gene would be between $15 million and $36 million.”

“So, again, I ask how did we get here exactly,” she said. “We’ve got benefits, it’s safe, more precise, more predictable, we know exactly what we’re doing, so we’re (USDA) really going to make you pay for that one.”

It’s not just the cost of the compliance process, but “the U.S. regulatory system and the time it takes from a request for approval to a granting of approval have increased significantly and become increasingly unpredictable,” says Massey. “It’s not just the timelines but what you need to do in order to get an approval.”

As a result, the United States, which once issued approvals for biotech traits within a matter of months now takes years. It also lags far behind countries like Brazil, Argentina and Canada, which compete with the U.S. in export markets.

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